Posted: Feb 10, 2014 11:00 AM
Barbie has come under fire once again as a recent interview with the vice president of design for Barbie defends the doll's outrageous proportions. While some experts claim the doll leads to negative body image and might even trigger eating disorders, others point the finger at moms. Can such a complicated issue possibly be so black and white?

It should be noted that I never played with Barbies. I don't think my mother was morally opposed to them in any way, as my little sister did have a few Barbies at some point, but it really wasn't my thing. I belonged to the Strawberry Shortcake generation, and I spent countless hours lost in a land full of fruit-filled fun. When I wasn't doing that, I was engrossed in world of Matchbox cars with my older brother. Or, I was outside — because in the '80s, you spent the majority of your free time playing outside. Oh, how the world has changed.

Barbie is not intended to serve as a role model for little girls, so says Culmone, she is simply a doll meant for fantasy play.

One thing that has not changed much, however, is Barbie's physique. Large on top but extraordinarily small just about everywhere else and with legs that go on for days, Barbie is nothing if not consistent. Consistency, it seems, is important to the brand. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, addressed the impossibly proportioned doll. Culmone explained that Barbie was never meant to be realistic — she was meant to be dressed and undressed with ease. She also talked about the importance of consistency, citing the fact that Barbie is a 55-year-old brand, and mothers are passing dolls and clothing down to their daughters. Barbie is not intended to serve as a role model for little girls, so says Culmone, she is simply a doll meant for fantasy play.

The interview sparked conversations among parents and psychologists, as talk of Barbie often does. Some feel strongly that Barbie and other similar dolls can negatively impact future body image for the little girls who internalize mixed messages during play, while others feel that the dolls are, indeed, tools for fantasy play with little effect on body image, and that parental influence is more likely to blame for distorted body image. And so the debate continues.

The problem with focusing on opposing viewpoints, of course, is that black and white thinking doesn't account for shades of gray. The reality is that little girls are surrounded by shades of gray right now. Between easy access to media, the rise of social media and photo sharing and a high-pressure society that puts "perfection" on a pedestal, it isn't easy to be a girl right now. Mixed messages are everywhere (even the characters on the GoldieBlox building sets, allegedly created to empower young girls, leave a bit to be desired).

A family affair

While I hesitate to blame parents, specifically moms, for distorted body image and the rise of eating disorders, supportive parent-child relationships play a critical role in building self-esteem. If we want to raise strong, self-confident girls, we have to build them up. That doesn't mean praising every little thing they do, though, as that can actually backfire when the going gets tough. To build strong girls, we need to help them find their strengths, praise their efforts and encourage them to work through obstacles.

To build strong girls we need to help them find their strengths, praise their efforts and encourage them to work through obstacles.

We also have to be honest with them about body image and how media can affect self-image. We owe it to our daughters to throw away the US Weekly magazines, demystify those perfect pictures and watch our media intake. We owe it to our daughters to be kind to ourselves. We owe it to them to stop criticizing our bodies, our faces and our denim sizes and focus on good health instead.

We can choose to set our daughters up for a lifetime of healthy choices and positive body image or we can choose to set them up for a lifetime of self-loathing and negative body image. It doesn't actually seem like much of a choice, if you ask me.

Outside influence

Even if you are honest, positive and always promoting good health, chances are your daughter will hear something negative related to body image from someone else in her life. The minute they walk out the front door to school each morning, we can no longer control what they hear. We also can't be there to process those negative statements as they arise. But we can process it after the fact.

We can't control what our children hear and see when they are away from us, but we can prepare them for it.

My 7-year-old daughter recently recounted a story of two girls in her class pointing to pictures of drawings of girls in stories and calling them "fat." After a few deep breaths to restore my broken heart over the fact that first graders even think such thoughts, we talked about the things her classmates said. We talked about magazines, airbrushing and dolls that look a little too small around the middle. We talked about comments parents might make when they don't think their kids are listening and why healthy is the focus in our home. And then we discussed how she can respond the next time it happens. Sadly, there is likely to be a next time, after all.

We can't control what our children hear and see when they are away from us, but we can prepare them for it. We can guard them against negative messages by frequently tackling these difficult topics. I wish I didn't have to talk to my daughter about body image and the influence of media at such a young age, but honest conversations now will help guard her against negative messages as she encounters them. And so we talk.

Let kids play

There's no doubt about it, Barbie's proportions are completely unrealistic. Even her feet are entirely too small and set at a very strange angle to accommodate those pumps (does Barbie even own a pair of sneakers?)  But not every little girl playing with a Barbie doll is internalizing negative messages about body image. And Barbie isn't the only doll with an ultra-slim body and inappropriate clothing. Have you seen those Monster High dolls? Even my beloved Strawberry Shortcake looks like she could stand to eat a few of her own pies these days.

Fantasy play is fun and engaging and helps girls work through their emotions. Unstructured play is the greatest gift you can give your child. Try not to over think it too much if your daughter happens to gravitate toward Barbie. Time spent lost in an imaginary world with a few dolls has the potential to help your daughter work on things like social interaction skills and assertiveness skills. Be honest about the fact that dolls are just dolls and Barbie isn't realistic, should the topic arise. But otherwise, let your kids play. In the wise words of my 7-year-old daughter, "Barbie is just a pretend doll, Mommy. Did you see what her tummy looks like? I don't think she could have room to breathe if she was real." Wise words, indeed.

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